Amid RNC allegations, Sexual Violence Awareness Week little more than lip service, says activist

·3 min read
Elliott, seen here protesting outside Supreme Court last year, says she's frustrated by government response on the topic of sexual violence. (Malone Mullin/CBC - image credit)
Elliott, seen here protesting outside Supreme Court last year, says she's frustrated by government response on the topic of sexual violence. (Malone Mullin/CBC - image credit)
Malone Mullin/CBC
Malone Mullin/CBC

Heather Elliott has been through this before.

The St. John's activist says she has repeatedly petitioned government for reform on sexual violence in the wake of the Doug Snelgrove trials that saw the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary officer convicted of sexually assaulting a woman he drove home one night in 2014.

Since then, a flood of women have come forward with accusations of their own, painting a picture of widespread institutional sexual violence within the force.

Elliott said she has asked, again and again, for meaningful policy change but all she sees is lip service.

"We don't need words. We don't need lip service. We need action," Elliott said. "And I don't know how many different ways folks like myself can say that."

Pam Parsons, minister of women and gender equality, signed a proclamation Wednesday designating Sept. 11-17 as Sexual Violence Awareness Week across the province.

For Elliott, the office's endorsement — along with what she says is an absence of action on the subject of sexual violence — strikes her as a ringing blow to community lobbying efforts.

Education, judicial reform?

Elliott has been asking politicians for reform in the education system, she says, suggesting that the introduction of robust curricula about consent could help prevent sexual violence down the road.

Activists have also been calling for judicial reform, demanding the creation of a specialized sexual assault court to help survivors through the criminal process when a sex assault case goes to trial, she says.

"Having an awareness week is great, but again, those conversations are [already] happening on the community level. What is government doing on a policy, procedural, legislative level to ensure that these awareness weeks are going somewhere?" she said.

"I think [an awareness week] is the bare minimum that could be done on the government level when it comes to addressing this issue."

Malone Mullin/CBC
Malone Mullin/CBC

Despite repeated questions from CBC News at Thursday's announcement, Parsons could not point to any concrete efforts by her office to introduce policy changes to protect survivors and prevent violence.

Parsons stressed that the Office of Women and Gender Equality was "working with" community stakeholders and providing them funding and would offer assistance to other departments, but did not elaborate on that work when asked.

"Conversations are ongoing," Parsons said.

"We work closely with community stakeholders. I mean, they're on the front lines to work with victims, to get people the supports they need."

Widespread sexual violence allegations

The announcement from Parsons comes a day after the Canadian Press reported the RNC quietly implemented a policy last year prohibiting officers from transporting members of the public unless they receive a call for service.

Many of the allegations against the RNC have involved officers harassing or assaulting women after offering them a ride, as described in a report, released last month by the provincial serious-incident response team, that said at least one officer should have been investigated criminally for allegedly groping a woman in his patrol car.

Last summer, 11 women also emerged with accusations of their own against the RNC. Eight of them are in the process of launching lawsuits against the provincial government.

Malone Mullin/CBC
Malone Mullin/CBC

Parsons said Thursday she was happy to help the Justice Department with any policy work it might be pursuing but did not point to any specific ways the office had done so to date.

Elliott says she's seeking more effort from the House of Assembly.

"While it's great to have an awareness week so that these conversations are happening around kitchen tables or in community spaces, the fact is the government holds all the cards when it comes to making lasting, impactful change," Elliott said.

"And I would have liked to see something with a bit more teeth other than just naming an awareness week."

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